Don’t Teach Programs!

One of the things that gets me upset is something that happens in schools every day (it happens in other places as well). It is a type of education malpractice, and you’ll know it when you hear someone say that they teach “Microsoft Office”. And I say that not because there is anything wrong with Microsoft Office. Truth be told, it is a fine suite of office productivity software which I use frequently. But I use a lot of programs, including LibreOffice, OpenOffice.org, Corel WordPerfect Office, and at various times I have used ABI word, Quattro, and probably a half-dozen programs I can’t bring to mind right now. And the truth that most people never hear is:

They all do pretty much the same things.

I have taught people to use a lot of these programs, and I teach them the same things regardless of the program used. I never have a problem because I don’t worry about learning the program, I will instead learn the concepts. For example, if you put me in front of a computer that has a new word processing package on it that I have never used, the first thing I will do is figure out where the Templates are and how to set up my Styles. I know those two concepts are key to using a word processing program. And if I don’t find those two are in the program, I know it is not really a word processing program, it is a text editor. There is nothing wrong with being a text editor, it is a tool for a different purpose. But if you don’t understand what it means to do Word Processing, you might not understand what the difference is other than the lack of font choices.

If you teach specific programs you make people dependent on having a specific program. If you teach the underlying concepts, however, you empower people. That said,people who are properly trained will have to understand that how a given program implements a feature may be different. They may use different terminology. I recently heard a complaint that LibreOffice Writer was no good because this person could not do text boxes. And the problem here is that LibreOffice calls them frames, and in fact they are far more powerful than a mere text box. Different terminology was most of the problem here, but the feature was there.

Now, it is true that in some marginal cases there may be differences, but most of the time any feature most people use in any one program will be in all of the others as well. You just need to be flexible.

But stop teaching specific programs. Education ought to be about empowering people, not tying them down.

CC BY-SA 4.0 Don’t Teach Programs! by Kevin O'Brien is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.